Appalachia Natives: The Mountains Do Not Limit Us, We Do

I recently met with a former coal and gas executive from the Midwest. He used to travel to Central Appalachia – Eastern Kentucky – to supervise mining operations. This is same section of Central Appalachia where I was raised; in fact the mines he visited were within an hour or so from my childhood home.

He shared a couple of great Central Appalachia tales with me – gun-wielding grannies and copper thieves. But the most interesting description he gave was about how he felt in the mountains. He had never been in mountains so steep or been in a place where the sun comes up before you can see it and it disappears behind a mountain before it gets dark.

He said, “I felt claustrophobic.”

This made me think about how those mountains make me feel. To me those mountains are like a warm blanket surrounding, nurturing, and protecting all who walk under them. Keeping the good in and the bad out.

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Then I thought about how the landscape of the Midwest, where I live now, made me feel when I first arrived. The word that immediately came to mind was exposed. I felt exposed by the size of the sky, the distance of vision, and the constant wind. I have never been exposed to this much sky for this length of time (thus my fixation with sunrises and sunsets). In the mountains of Central Appalachia the sky is always framed with the jagged edges of tree limbs and mountaintops like a giant living, real-time painting.

This discussion reminded me of a quote from a book I read in college – Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington. Mr. Covington writes about his drive from Alabama to and through these very mountains and my hometown of Grundy, Virginia.

All along the highways through Tennessee and southwest Virginia, the signs were everywhere: Crazy Joe’s Fireworks, Jack Daniel’s whiskey, drag racing, turkey shoots, and barbecue. The South they suggested was straight out of the movies – idiosyncratic, lazy, restless, and self-absorbed. And that was what Jim and Melissa and I talked about on the drive, the discrepancy between the South of the popular imagination and the one we lived and worked in every day. But once the road narrowed and entered the mountains, the signs disappeared, replaced by mine tipples, mantrips, and long lines of train cars filled with coal that steamed in the rain. The last motels and hospital were at Grundy, Virginia, a mining town on the lip of a winding river between mountains so steep and irrational, they must have blocked most of the sun most of the day. It is difficult to imagine how children can grow up in such a place without carrying narrowed horizons into the rest of their lives.

But Grundy was an oasis compared with the country between it and Jolo.

He, like my friend, saw the mountains as hard – hard to adjust to, hard to live in, and hard to understand. They immediately saw the limitations of the mountains.

As a child of those mountains it never occurred to me that the mountains were limiting, restrictive, or negative. It never occurred to me that the mountains were preventing me from seeing something more. When I lived in the mountains I never missed the orange and pink glow of the sun as it came up and went down along the horizon. Rather, I enjoyed the light as it slowly lowered down the hillside in the morning and as it retreated up the hillside in the evening. Neither one is limiting, only different.

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The mountains were a vast playground of trees, moss, creeks, and rocks – where the only rule was to be back before dark. All of those hills, rocks, crevices, streams, and hollers were a big classroom for learning life skills. These are a few of my favorite lessons :

  • In order to walk down the side of a hill without falling adjust your stance, turn your feet horizontally and descend slowly.
  • If you want to create an extra source of water for yard work then you dam up a section of the creek, gravity feed the water down the holler, then pump it up the hillside.
  • Always make sure your walking stick is sturdy.
  • Never kill a black snake, because it eats the rodents.
  • Be careful what you do at the head of the holler because it will show up at the mouth – it all runs downhill.
  • Respect everyone and things that are bigger, stronger, and/or more powerful than you – the mountain, weather, a loaded coal truck, bears, and water.
  • Never kill a mama bear or a deer that isn’t big enough and throw the fish back. If you kill it, then you eat it. No waste.
  • Don’t be a wimp. Play when you are hurt, work when you are tired.
  • Never forget where you came from or deny your family.

All those lessons live on and color the life we make in and out of the mountains. Just like the mountains, those lessons are timeless. And what we learned from and in the mountains can carry us far beyond and right back to where we started, if we choose to wander.

The mountains don’t narrow our horizons, only we do that.

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App-uh-latch-uh

Appalachia is more than a place. The Appalachian Mountains are rich with customs, food and dialect that is not found anywhere else. Those mountains are at the core of the people who were raised there or have adopted it as home. The mountains become part of who we are, why we are, and how we go about what we do.

Great Smokey MountainsOne of the things that many Appalachia natives are particular about is how we say our name. This is also something that many people from elsewhere do not understand. In Central Appalachia, where I am from, it is app-uh-LATCH-uh, not app-uh-LAY-sha. I am told that there are people in Appalachia who were taught to use the latter pronunciation. Fair enough, I obviously get regional dialect. Please understand, when you say App-uh-LAY-sha in much of Appalachia people, in addition to knowing immediately that you are not a local, may think you are trying to be fancy or worse. How you say the word Appalachia matters.

As you can tell, I and many others feel strongly about this word. So, when stumbling around on the internet I found a company called Pronunciation Tees I was super excited. What do these people do? Well, they get me and my people. Pronunciation Tees produces t-shirts that proudly display the proper pronunciation of Appalachia – [app-uh-latch-uh].

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The moment I saw this shirt I had to have it. Oh, and it gets better, the mission statement of the company is to

Help raise awareness about the infection known as [app-a-lay-sha].

I encourage everyone to support these brave and creative folks. It’s cool, it’s fun, and it’s just plain right.

Southern Sayings That Never Get Old

I arrived in my hometown for the holidays and it took only moments for me to feel completely at home. I went directly to an event and heard a family friend declare, in that precious Appalachian twang, “I swanny.” If you do not know, “I swanny” is a Southern exclamation  akin to “I do declare” or “I swear.” My Grandmommy was partial to the term and it always reminds me of her when I hear it. She had a way with words and her favorite sayings have been adopted by my Mommy, Sister, and me. Grandmommy was funny, direct, and very-southern. We buried her 12 years ago tomorrow: December 31, 2000.

Grandmommy holding me on Easter Sunday long ago.

Grandmommy holding me on Easter Sunday long ago.

In her honor, I give you twenty of my favorite Southern sayings that I hear when I am around home (I’ve included a little context for fun).

Wishing your evil boss would take a hike? Grandmommy might say, “well, old devils never die.”

If you find out that they sent your redneck cousin to finishing school, then you’ll probably hear “you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”

Upon seeing so-and-so’s new toy-sized dog Dad would say it is “ugly as a mud fence.”

At my house if you are a smart aleck you will be told to “hush or I’ll box your jaws.”

I’ve lost some weight and my mother, who was walking behind me through a public parking lot said, “your daddy must be a coal miner, cause you have some slack in your britches.”

The Bible says “you reap what you sow,” but my Mommy says that “the mill stone grinds slow, but it is always grinding.”

When you tell my Mommy about your dad, brother, husband, or boyfriend getting up at 3:00 a.m. to sit in a tree stand for hours in the cold, she might say that “men lose their minds when hunting season starts.”

My father constantly teases my mother about buying him a truck; she now responds without fail or hesitation “I tried to get you to buy a truck.” Who knows if this is true.

Got an ex-boyfriend who won’t work? Grandmommy would say that “he’s about as useful as a tit on a boar hog.”

Beware entering the presence of an older Southern woman when looking tired, unkept, or sick, else you are likely to hear “I swanny, you look rode hard and put away wet.”

My Auntie O was always extremely thin and she used to complain that my Daddy would tell her that she was “so skinny she could use a clothes-line as an umbrella.”

If you threw away Daddy’s plate before he was finished with it he’ll be “as mad as a wet hen.”

My mother buys groceries as though the store will disappear tomorrow; so, when you find a rotten cucumber (the worst) in the back of the fridge it will “gag a maggot off a gut wagon.”

The next two are not particularly kind, but often used regarding someone’s boyfriend, kid, neighbor, or husband. Lord forgive us. “That baby looks like someone beat it with an ugly stick” or “He looks like he fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch.”

Remember the aforementioned boyfriend who would not work? Well, it might be because “he’s as dumb as a box of rocks.”

Everybody likes fine things. Not everyone can afford them. Around here that is having “champagne taste on a beer budget.”

In my Southern home laziness was shameful and you never wanted to be accused of sitting “there like a bump on a log.” I had a high school algebra teacher who was missing two fingers on one hand. She used to pound that fist on her book and tell us not to sit there like a “bump on a pickle.” She, too, was not a fan of laziness.

Long engagement? Taking too long to make a decision? If so, then Mommy would say that “it is time to fish or cut bait.”

The most Southern phrase of all: “Bless your heart.” This phrase, or the just as effective variation of “Love your/his/her heart,” can and often precedes a compliment, criticism, or tall tale. Other times it is an exclamation, a thank you, or a sincere prayer.

What phrases or euphemisms remind you of your family?

Bless your hearts for reading and have a happy and safe new year!

Tickled and Other Words Midwesterners Don’t Say

I recently spent a lovely evening looking at art with fellow Southern refugee, CLW. When we are together there is no absolutely no dead air and the conversation moves quickly from one topic to the next. Like, it will make your head spin quickly. But neither of us really notice, we just roll with the laughter. As we chatted a few classic Southern words crossed my friend’s lips. Words that I never hear anymore, because Midwesterners just don’t talk like Southerners. Here are a few that I miss . . .

No one in the Midwest is “tickled.” Well, they might be but instead they would say happy, amused, pleased, or excited. In the South we are tickled if we get a sweet gift or a nice compliment. Or as you might recall from the epic Southern tear=jerker, Steel Magnolias, if you are Southern you might find yourself “tickled pink.”

Also, no one here gets any “sugar.” You know, come on over here and so I can “give you some sugar.” Sugar as in affection – hugs, kisses, love. It is sweet! Literally and figuratively.

I have not seen anyone in FW that would admit that they were “fit to be tied.” If you are angry then you are if you are fit to be tied.

When someone stays out late having a “big time” my Daddy would say that they “laid out.” If Daddy says you laid out last night then he also thinks you were drunk.

Piddly. No one says piddly in the Midwest. It means little, insignificant, or inferior. Like she came over here on that piddly ole bicycle or your raise might have been piddly. Piddly always reminds me of kindly . . . that box is kindly small for your present.

If you don’t know the name of something or someone it is a thingamajig, whatchamacallitwhatshisname, whatshername, or a hootenanny. Of course, you can also lay out and have a big time at a hootenanny.

Now, I don’t recommend or advise that you call people names but some women are huzzies. my Mommy on occasion calls The Queen a “huzzy” when she is being difficult. It means a female of ill repute, if you will. People don’t say that here.

If you are poor in the Midwest, you are just poor. In the South “you don’t have a pot to pee in.” We like graphic images.

In the South after dinner, you might “be about to pop” or be “full as a tick.” Here you just had too much to eat, booorring.

If you are talking ugly about someone in the South you are probably “bad-mouthing” them.

Where I am from “cain’t never could do nothing.” In the Midwest you do hear an “ain’t” here or there but folks here have not graduated to “cain’t,” as in cannot, yet. We like to compound our negatives, proper English be damned.

What’s really sad is that no one here knows what it means if you are gonna “run down to the Pig.” Ahh, I miss the Piggly Wiggly. “The Pig,” as it was affectionately referred to, is the first grocery store I remember. Later it changed to the Food City, but it took years for Mommy to stop calling it The Pig.

Southern talk never gets old and it always sounds sweet even when it is not. That is why when I chance to spend time with my fellow Southern expatriates arises I jump on it like a duck on a junebug!

Here’s a little country from one of my favorite Southern women (introduced by my favorite muppet) . . .

 

Family Talk, Southern Style

I have established that Southern speak is its own form of English. Where else does your mama look at you and say something like “well, honey, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”.  I submit to you, no where.

Now imagine not just one Southern mother in a room but several.  Then imagine that they are all related.  Then add in their husbands, children, and grandchildren.  This is like a festival of sayings, slang, and general entertainment.

I was recently home for an extended visit due to the death of my beloved Auntie O. In the South when death occurs many visits and countless food deliveries follow. Luckily, my family loves to eat and there are plenty of us to do it. I have 13 first cousins ranging in age from 6 to 58, 14 second cousins, and 5 third cousins with one on the way.  These are just the cousins in my immediately family – on my father’s side they go on forever. In fact, there is one holler in town where I am related to everyone in it.  These 33 cousins are just the beginning. And, I know that this is not the proper legal designation for cousins – no need for some smart wills and estates lawyers to correct me here.  Of all those family members at least 29 were present at this sad occasion. In one house. Amongst the crowd were three lawyers, three physicians assistants, three nurses, five teachers, two ultrasound technicians, a speech language pathologist, nurse practitioner, a pilot, and a “hell of an engineer” as my Daddy says.

Below are some random comments that I overheard throughout one evening (please note that there is no way for me to put all these into context).  This will give you a taste of a close Southern family in all its glory.  Enjoy!

“I reckon we can tie a chain to it an pull it out?”

“That was the time we got that VW Beetle stuck in Bath County during the snow storm, that is what they are talking about.”

“We lived at the good end of the bottom, on the other side of the restaurant.”

“What is that (referring to a cousin’s tattoo)?”

“Donald slept in the Rambler that whole summer.”

“You were a happy baby, you just did not sleep.”

“Am I related to all these people?”

“Which one is your Dad?”

“Are you all still talking about the dogs?”

“Don’t give away my pickled beets.”

“Does he [vegetarian cousin] know that those green beans were made with fatback?”

“No, but I can’t wait to tell him.”

“She knew how to boss.”

“She hid the chicken and dumplings.”

“She made me give her a dip . . . the color drained out of her face . . . then she was laid out on the front porch throwing up.”

“This is no place for someone with a headache.”

“I can’t tell you I love you enough.”

“I can’t listen enough.”